Just as Charles Dickens authored A Tale of Two Cities, Cornell head coach Jim Knowles ’87 has penned A Tale of Two Seasons. A once promising season that started with an exciting victory over Bucknell, the Miracle at Lehigh and the homecoming triumph over Yale has turned as gray and gloomy as the late October Ithaca sky. With four games remaining on the 2008 docket, the Cornell football team (3-3, 1-2 Ivy) stands at .500 for the second time in two seasons. The final four contests present a great opportunity for the underclassmen to open some eyes this season and set the stage for next year. More significantly, the rest of the season provides the 33 seniors with a chance to play with pride and strive to finish their four-year career with a winning record of 23 victories and 17 defeats.
The following provides an in-depth examination and evaluation of the football team’s performance to date. Each position is given a final letter grade as a composite unit. Please note: I am a little kinder than your average Cornell professor. The median grade is a B+. (Sure, .500 will not cut it in any class Cornell has to offer, but we’re talking about winning football games, not the simple, mundane process of projecting future cash flows or recreating Bohr’s model of the atom.)
The good news is that Cornell ranks third in the Ivy League with 259.3 passing yards per game. The bad news is senior signal caller Nathan Ford has tossed more interceptions than touchdowns. His seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions are far from the optimal 2:1 ratio most quarterbacks aspire to. Ford leads the Ancient Eight with 153 completions, but ranks sixth with a 110.91 passer rating. His most notable performance this year occurred on Oct. 4 at Lehigh when he threw for 438 yards and two touchdowns. Ford’s aerial assault was the third most prolific in school history. A frequent dose of junior Stephen Liuzza substituting for Ford every now and then does not hurt. Primarily functioning as a wide receiver, Liuzza provides fresh legs from behind center and often takes the direct snap for big play yardage against unsuspecting defenses.
Running Backs: B+
The expectations for the running attack may have been a little unfair to start the campaign. Then again, Cornell’s fifth leading rusher in school history, senior Luke Siwula, was returning after injuries plagued him in 2007 and forced him to miss all but the first three games. In addition, last season’s emergence of junior Randy Barbour had some forecasting an unstoppable smash mouth barrage fueled by this dynamic duo. Unfortunately, Cornell only ranks No. 4 in the Ivy League with 103.8 yards per outing. Naturally, anything over the century mark is acceptable for a rush attack, but the Red’s numbers have also received a boost from Liuzza stepping in at quarterback to run the ball a few times every game. Siwula and Barbour rank a mediocre tenth and eleventh in the Ancient Eight with 3.6 and 3.4 yards per carry respectively.
Wide Receivers: A
Cornell might not have the tallest receiver or the fastest flanker, but it has perhaps the deepest wide out corps in the Ivy League. Senior Jesse Baker paces the Red with five touchdown receptions. Baker and Brown junior Bobby Sewall lead all of the Ancient Eight receivers in this category. In addition, Cornell boasts three receivers, including Baker, senior Zac Canty and junior Bryan Walters, among the top-10 in receptions. Baker and Canty have each hauled in 31 passes for a fifth place tie and Walters is tenth, having snagged 24 balls. Of the team’s 2,179 yards of total offense at this point in the season, 1,556 of those yards were amassed through the air. This figure accounts for approximately 71 percent of the Red’s total offensive output.
Offensive Line: B
Three weeks ago, I would have considered the play of the offensive line to warrant an A or A+. Through the first three games of the season, the big boys upfront lead the nation by not allowing a single sack. However, the honeymoon is over as Nathan Ford’s pocket has all too often collapsed over the past few weeks. Ford has endured a beating on the gridiron as he was sacked seven times and hit or knocked down on an additional 13 occasions in the previous three games, not coincidentally, all defeats. Furthermore, for the ground attack to improve the rest of the way, it is imperative for the O-line to step up, open holes and lead the way.
Defensive Line: B
Similar to the offensive line, the defensive line received praise and national recognition in the early fall. After three consecutive wins to open the season, the Red ranked second in the FCS against the run, permitting a stingy 37 rushing yards per game. One three-game losing streak later and Cornell has seen its average mushroom to a pedestrian 114.8 yards per outing. Surrendering 142 yards on the ground at Harvard and then being toasted for 345 rushing yards a week later at home against Colgate will tend to skew the early season successes. In addition, opposing offensive coordinators have apparently discovered the answer to taming the fierce Cornell pass attack that accumulated eight sacks in its first two games, but only two sacks since then. It also says a lot about your front line when a team’s leading tackler is a safety — senior Tim Bax paces the Red with 52 tackles.
The linebacking corps has recorded the greatest number of sacks (14.5) among any defensive unit for Cornell. Junior Chris Costello leads the Red with 7.5 quarterback takedowns and is second on the club with 51 tackles. However, the gashes in the run defense cannot be the sole fault of the D-line. Cornell ranks next to last in the Ancient Eight in total defense, allowing 367 yards of total offense per contest.
Simply put, the Red ranks last in the league in pass defense and interceptions. Cornell has given up 10 touchdowns through the air and only picked off opposing quarterbacks twice this season. Bax, a second-team All-Ivy selection, provides a punishing last line of defense for Cornell. Fellow senior safeties Anthony Sabo, an Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week, and Gus Krimm rank second on the defense with four sacks apiece. With an aggressive defense, Cornell likes to blitz and will bring anyone from anywhere, but this risky approach often leaves cornerbacks Frank Morand, Emani Fenton and Andy Wade on an island in one-on-one coverage. The secondary has also had trouble defending taller receivers, including Bucknell’s Shaun Pasternak at 6-3, Harvard’s Matt Luft at 6-6, Colgate’s Pat Simonds at 6-6 and Brown’s Bobby Sewall at 6-1. All of these behemoths tallied 100+ yards receiving against the Red.
Special Teams: B+
Some of the greatest thrills of the season so far have been the result of outstanding individual accomplishment on the special teams. Thanks to senior linebacker Graham Rihn’s game-winning block of Bucknell’s extra point attempt in the season opener and his key deflection of Yale’s 42-yard field goal attempt a week later, the special teams unit moved from a B to a B+. Although Cornell ranks second in the league with 23.4 yards per kickoff return, the Red ranks at the bottom of the Ancient Eight in punt coverage, pinning back the opposition only 29.3 net yards per punt. Cornell also ranks seventh with a .667 (4-6) field goal percentage. However, lest one not forget that sophomore kicker Brad Greenway iced the upset against Yale with a 21-yard boot through the uprights, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
Consistency is the most any coach can ask for from his team. Cornell’s stout run defense and perseverance on offense are team characteristics that came to be expected from the three-game win streak to open up the 2008 campaign. However, as offenses around the league adapted, the holes in the Cornell defense became increasingly more exploited. The 38-17 loss to Harvard should have set off an alarm, but it was not until the Red was gouged for another 38 points the following week in a loss to Colgate that Cornell decided to reexamine its defensive strategy and return to basics.
The offensive struggles in the red zone also have to be addressed. In 26 trips to the red zone, Cornell has only come away with 13 touchdowns. On a positive note, Coach Knowles can be proud that Cornell is the second least penalized team in the Ivy League and first in time of possession. Both are indications of team discipline and intelligent execution of the coaching staff’s game plan.
DISCLAIMER: This intended to be a fair and unbiased assessment of the individual units of the team. (Keep in mind that sports columnists from The Boston Globe, The New York Post and The Chicago Tribune routinely offer similar opinions on their local athletic teams midway through the season.) Finally, all comments and/or complaints are welcomed and appreciated.